When God is Silent

“I know God is there, but right now He feels so far away it is hard to believe He even cares. I try to pray to Him, but it doesn’t change anything. What happened to the God who is supposed to love me and hold my hand through the hard times? It’s hard enough dealing with everything else going wrong in my life right now, but the thing that hurts the most is that He won’t even show up to reassure me that He cares.” I listened to my friend’s gut-wrenching honesty about her struggles with God in the midst of her depression and I remembered times when I had felt the same way. Turning to the Psalms, I discovered that we were not the only ones.

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?
Psalm 13:1-2

Miserable. Alone. Disturbing thoughts. Despairing heart. Once upon a time, David had experienced the joy of hearing from God, of seeing His hand at work in his life in powerful ways. Once upon a time he had enjoyed the unchallenged certainty of God’s goodness and love. But all that was such a distant memory, it was hard now to believe it had ever really been true.

Now heaven seemed steely and prohibitive, heaven’s God silent and removed. David kept calling out to Him in distress, begging Him to hear and answer, but nothing happened. Nothing changed. The people around him who didn’t care about God or bother with conforming their lives to His standards seemed perfectly happy, while he was miserable and afflicted at every turn. It would have been easier if God had not raised his expectations with promises of the honor and security of a throne. It was difficult to reconcile those promises with the fact that, instead, he had been living for years as a hunted vagabond, hiding out in caves and having to drool on himself like a madman so his enemies wouldn’t kill him. Where was God now? How could he keep believing in His promises when everything around him seemed to prove them false?

Look on me and answer, O LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death.
Psalm 13:3

David was at the end of his emotional rope. His faith reserves were exhausted and he was on the verge of losing it. If God didn’t turn and respond to him in some way, he wouldn’t be able to keep going.

Past experience of God’s goodness is the life raft that carries us through the present experience of His silence.

But God had already responded to him. He had already met him in tangible ways. He had proven His great love in the past. Miraculous rescues. Intimate encounters. Beautiful prophecies. Worshipful moments. They had all been so real. Did they count for nothing now? David was faced with a difficult choice. Which experience of God would he believe: His former kindness or His current indifference?

But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me.
Psalm 13:5-6

In an act of desperate faith, David clung to the reality of God’s unfailing love. His situation was still wretched, but he chose to let the past interpret the present. God’s love had never failed him then. He could only hope that it would not fail him now. His story wasn’t over yet. He would wait in hope to see how God would prove His love in the middle of this mess.

When life stinks and God is silent, we are faced with the same choice. Everything around us screams that God doesn’t care, drowning out that still, quiet testimony within our hearts that He does. We want to keep believing, but we need some sign of His love to offset the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. He doesn’t always give us that sign on demand, but He has given us ample proof of His love in the past. Past experience of God’s goodness is the life raft that carries us through the present experience of His silence.

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The Story Goes On

All the candles have been lit and burned low. Endless trips to the store have turned to endless leftovers in the fridge. The tree stands empty, the bank balance is down, and the scale reading is up. Christmas is over, and it’s back to life as usual.

The excitement and fanfare of Christ’s birth may be finished, but His story goes on. The shepherds head back into the office, the angelic lights go away, and mundane earthly life begins. The kingly visitors pack up and leave and a young family are left to deal with the aftermath of their celebration: a jealous king intent on eliminating Jesus.

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. … When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
Matthew 2:13-16

Midnight warning. Abrupt departure. Terrifying flight. Hunted. Infants massacred in His place. Residence in a foreign land. Indefinite displacement. Near misses. Repeated moves. Would their lives forever be hounded by danger and difficulty? This was no way to start a marriage, and it was certainly no way to raise a child. Why hadn’t the angels just explained that it would be like this in the first place? What had happened to all those glorious prophecies about Jesus wearing the government on His shoulder? At this point, “helpless refugee” seemed a more fitting title than “Prince of Peace.”

The outcome of their stories gives us hope in the middle of our own story.

Jesus was living a carefully crafted recapitulation (recap) of His ancestor David’s story. David’s start in life had been similarly spectacular: chosen out of the lineup of brothers to be anointed as the next king, victorious over an evil giant, miraculous deliverer from countless invading forces, celebrated hope of the people. But all those glorious celebrations came to an end and David was left to deal with their aftermath: a jealous king intent on eliminating him.

Saul sent men to David’s house to watch it and to kill him in the morning. But Michal, David’s wife, warned him, “If you don’t run for your life tonight, tomorrow you’ll be killed.” So Michal let David down through a window, and he fled and escaped. …
David went to Nob, to Ahimelech the priest. …
Then the king ordered the guards at his side: “Turn and kill the priests of the LORD, because they too have sided with David. They knew he was fleeing, yet they did not tell me.” … So Doeg the Edomite turned and struck them down. That day he killed eighty-five men who wore the linen ephod. He also put to the sword Nob, the town of the priests, with its men and women, its children and infants, and its cattle, donkeys and sheep.
1 Samuel 19:11-12; 21:1; 22:17-19

Midnight warning. Abrupt flight. Unexpected provision. Hunted. Priests massacred in his place. Residence in a foreign land. Indefinite displacement. Near misses. Always on the move. Would his life forever be hounded by danger and difficulty? This was no way to establish himself as a leader, and it was certainly no way to raise a secure, prosperous nation. Why hadn’t the prophet told him all the facts in the first place? What had happened to that glorious prophecy about him being king? Was he not God’s “anointed one” (Messiah in Hebrew, Christ in Greek)? At this point, “scum of the earth” and “tramp” seemed a more fitting title.

But the story didn’t stop there, for Jesus or for David. And it doesn’t stop there for us, either. As we do narrative theology we study the stories of Scripture and start to notice trends in how they develop and how they work out. Narrative theology then invites us to lay the outline of our stories like a transparency over the contours of matching biblical stories. And to the extent that our own stories are similar to the biblical stories, we can interpret our life experiences within the same framework and according to the same patterns.

God’s eventual fulfillment of His promises to David and His ultimate exaltation of Jesus to the highest throne are the happy endings that we cling to as we continue to muck along through the mundane of our own story. To the extent that we faithfully trudge along in their footsteps, we trust that God will complete our own stories in similarly satisfying ways. And that gives us hope in the middle of the mess: the story isn’t over yet.

Comfort and Joy? Glad Tidings in the Dark

Christmas caroling facilitates the most bizarre cultural collisions. When else do people open their doors and light up with a smile at the sound of the gospel being proclaimed? When else do secular, public facilities thank you for singing about the global reign of Christ the King?

All is calm; all is bright.

But Christmas caroling also produces poignant emotional collisions. Nostalgic tunes, cheery colors, cherubic faces, soft lights, and celebrating words weave together to send a message that all is right with the world. But what about when it isn’t? For those who sit in deep darkness, songs of comfort and joy dredge up the underlying sorrows, the deep pain, the unresolved conflicts that keep their world from being right. Blessed arms cradling a thriving infant call to mind the babies who didn’t make it or cause an ache in the hearts of those whose arms remain empty.  Presents stacked under a tree and a sumptuous feast spread on the table taunt those who struggle to cover their family’s most basic financial needs. And picture-perfect families happily celebrating together stand in stark contrast to the painful reality of those whose families are broken or abusive, separated by miles or perhaps even by death.

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

The first Christmas “songs” were for people sitting in the dark. The infertile couple who were past hope of ever holding their own child. An unwed mother wondering how this was going to work out. An engaged man wondering if his woman had cheated on him. Marginalized men working the night shift out in the fields to feed their families. An old widow living in the temple, without the security of a home of her own or the comfort of a family gathered around her. For Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the prophetess Anna, these songs brought a message of comfort and hope into their messy lives.

He knows our need, to our weakness is no stranger. Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!

No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.

God had heard their cries. He had noticed their plight. They were not alone. They were not forgotten. He had come to walk with them, to grieve with them, and to comfort them. He had also come to change their world. He had come to overturn the curse and make the wrong things right. He would heal the sick and restore the broken, feed empty stomachs and fill empty arms, affirm the humiliated and admonish the arrogant. And ultimately, He would restore all things to their rightful place in relationship with their God.

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by thine advent here;
And drive away the shades of night and pierce the clouds and bring us light!

Songs of Christmas stir our deepest longings. They bring us face to face with what is not right in our lives, and then promise us so much more. The thought of hope can be painful, especially in light of our past disappointments. But the message of Jesus’ birth calls us out of our dark caves to bask in the dawning light. God has heard our laments. He has and is responding to our pain.  And He will make all things new.

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.
Isaiah 9:2

Advent: Waiting in the Dark

It’s dark. I have been up for hours but the sun still shows no sign of rising. If my calendar didn’t inform me that these are the longest nights of the year and my globe didn’t show me that my place on the planet is temporarily tipped far away from the sun, I might begin to despair.

Will the light ever dawn again?

The Israelites found themselves asking a similar question. It had been a long time since they had seen the light of God’s presence among them, and they despaired of it ever returning. Once upon a time they had lived in their own land, victorious over their enemies, successful in their endeavors, and happy in their community. The symbol and source of their blessed life was the temple, the place where they had seen the radiant cloud of God’s Spirit alight among them.

Then the glory of the LORD rose from above the cherubim and moved to the threshold of the temple. The cloud filled the temple, and the court was full of the radiance of the glory of the LORD … Then the glory of the LORD departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim. While I watched, the cherubim spread their wings and rose from the ground, and as they went, the wheels went with them.
Ezekiel 10:4, 18-19

But all of that was long gone. Wave after wave of calamity had come along, stripping their land, destroying their homes, starving their children, wiping out their elderly, raping their women, and carrying off their survivors in chains. Devastated. Distressed. Their lives were a ruin. Their temple was rubble. It had been violated and desecrated beyond belief, and the light of God’s presence had departed from it. Without that light, they had no hope. Would it ever return?

The night in our soul can last so long that we despair of ever seeing light again.

God kept sending messages of hope, but their ongoing reality was anything but the radiant dawn that the prophets had foretold. After generations of living as refugees and exiles, they began to hobble back to their homeland. But the wasteland that met their eyes was nothing like the dreamland of their memories. Weak. Discouraged. They began the painstaking process of restoration. Zerubbabel rebuilt the temple. Nehemiah worked on the wall. Ezra re-established the priesthood. But God’s glory-cloud never showed up. They were plodding along by faith, laboring against overwhelming odds to bring back all that had been lost, to restore their lives to what they were supposed to be. Ready. Waiting. Surely any day now the trumpet would sound and the Lord would descend as He had before. Nothing happened.

“See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple, the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty.
But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire … he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver… and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years.
Malachi 3:1-4

Generation after generation came and went, and if anything, things only got worse. Tyrannical local rulers. Oppressive foreign invaders. Corrupt, mafia-run priests. Degrading practices throughout the land. Abominable idols in the temple. Where was the promised Messiah who would clean up all this mess? Where was that righteous King who would establish justice and peace for all time? Many quit on any hope of change, but the faithful persevered in waiting. Deep darkness covered their world, but they strained their eyes watching for the dawn. How long could they go on believing without seeing? The Old Testament closes its final book in a mess, with 600 years of hope unfulfilled and the light of God still missing.

The night in our soul can last so long that we despair of ever seeing light again. We can barely remember what it was like when we felt happy, connected to our community, and right with the world around us. We slog along, day after day, dutifully doing what we are supposed to do but not seeing any change. We cry out to God in laments and prayers, begging Him to return and restore us, but He isn’t responding.

Will the light ever dawn again?

But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.
Malachi 4:2

Heard.

Shouting. Calling out. Trying to explain. Failing to be heard. There are times when I feel that I am living out one of those vivid nightmares in which I am trapped and calling out to friends and loved ones, but no one hears me. They are so close I can see their faces as they laugh and interact with each other, but nothing I do can get them to notice my desperate plight. Am I invisible to them? Don’t they hear my silent shouts for help? Despairing and worn out from the effort, I am tempted to withdraw into the background and resign myself to being helpless and alone in my misery.

As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.”
He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?”
“Lord, I want to see,” he replied.
Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they also praised God.
Luke 18:35-43

Bartimaeus didn’t quit shouting. Blind, helpless, without an advocate, he sat at the fringe of the crowd calling out. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Who would stop and notice his plight? Who would bring his needs to Jesus? But the people who could have walked with him to healing stopped only to obstruct his efforts. Rebuked. His complaining was disturbing their peace. Silenced. If he kept voicing his needs, they might have to be inconvenienced or get emotionally involved. Despite the callousness of their responses, Bartimaeus refused to quit crying out to Jesus. He clung to the belief that God cared, that His earthly representative would listen and respond. And He did.

You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry.
Psalm 10:17

Several of you have written me personally about your own experiences of being trapped and alone in the middle of hardship and grief. I have felt honored that you would entrust me with your stories, the deep, unspeakable sorrows that leave you wounded and vulnerable. I feel, though, that your voices need to be heard by more ears than just mine. What you are suffering is real. It needs to be shared with others who feel like they are alone in similar circumstances. It also needs to be heard by those who want to understand but struggle to. With your permission, I have compiled some of your quotes for all of us to hear.

All these years I’ve felt alone in my physical and emotional anguish. I felt judged for questioning the platitudes of Christianese.

You have given words to things I have been feeling for years. Perhaps these few sentences explain why I no longer feel connected to “the church”… It was not “acceptable” to have the negative feelings I felt and so I stopped sharing those feelings with people who should have loved me through. Love did not compel them to acknowledge or share my emotional realities. I want to feel connected, but don’t have any idea where to start so I just wait…

It is just hurtful when the legitimate heart ache I feel is brushed aside as though it is nothing.
 I guess I find myself withdrawing from people mostly because I have been getting lots of cliches, “God’s got a plan,” type thing. True, yes, He does. I find people minimize the entire situation… “It could be worse.” I don’t really feel like going to church anymore… Is church a place of worship–or performance?

… ‘hurt’ with me…to feel the depth of my pain and not dismiss it as if it doesn’t exist or to have had enough of me/it if I don’t bounce back in a time frame that seems ‘reasonable’… A heart that loves deeply hurts deeply. If we can’t ache and suffer honestly with the body then who can we do it with?

The people who have made me feel most cared for in times of difficulty have been the ones who are willing to really listen, to find out how my heart is, not just the facts of the situation. Really walking with someone through a trial takes time, but we are called to bear one another’s burdens, to lean in and hear them, not rush off to the next thing. I think the Holy Spirit will prompt us as to who needs our care and when, if we are sensitive to His leading.

I think this…we have to WANT to show love in this way…a way that is foreign and uncomfortable to some…

I love the LORD, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy.
Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live.
Psalm 116:1-2

Healing Tears

My guts were spilled all over my friend’s lap. I had just admitted to her the full details of the horrific trial that I was still in the aftershocks of, details so deeply damaging that it had taken me a long time to admit them to myself. I hadn’t meant to say it all to her. My recent experiences with other friends had taught me to be afraid of being so open. Would she avert her eyes and change the subject? Would she try to convince me why it really wasn’t that bad? Would she deny my experience altogether or think of me as a lesser Christian because I continued to be so affected by it? Fear of further wounding made me want to withdraw from our friendship, but I just could not continue to bear this much pain on my own.

She wept.

As the tears spilled silently down her cheeks, all my carefully restrained emotions came bursting out. Up to this point I had walked around as if in a dream, carefully reporting the facts as if they had happened to someone else. I had been incapable of releasing the tidal wave of emotions that were crushing my spirit from within. My friend’s response informed my soul that it was finally safe. Her tears gave me permission to cry.

So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified though it.”
John 11:3-4

Jesus comforted His friends in the same way. Mary and Martha’s world had been rocked by the sudden loss of their brother and all the stability, protection, and love that he had provided. Their minds where reeling with the shock; their hearts were broken by the truth. Lazarus was gone, permanently and finally gone. Jesus knew better, but He didn’t say so. He made room for their pain, listening tenderly to their agonized questions and engaging them in their sorrow. He did not repeat the line about God having a good plan, even though it was true. He did not interrupt their grieving process with a quick fix, even though He could.

He wept.

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at this feet and said, “Lord, if you had ben here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, LORD,” they replied.
Jesus wept.
Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
John 11:32-36

Sincere, heart-broken tears, flowing down the face of God. The Almighty, weeping. Why? Because those He loved were weeping. Because He is not the kind of friend who stands far off, afraid to be affected by our pain. Because what His friends needed right then was compassion, not answers or solutions. Jesus’ tears communicated His love in a way no words or miracles could. This time, Jesus healed the sick in heart through tears.

Jesus healed the sick in heart through tears.

Jesus cries for us for when can’t cry for ourselves. His plans for our suffering and His power to overcome it don’t preclude His tears for us in the midst of it. For some reason I have yet to understand, He values the process of our grieving too much to resolve it prematurely. When we weep with those who weep, we enter into their pain the same way God enters into ours. Our tears offer a healing balm, the tangible evidence of God’s compassionate love.

He bore our grief and carried our sorrows. Isaiah 53:4

Lamenting Lessons

“I feel so distant from you. My life is a living hell, and I can’t escape it. Miserable. Alone. Overwhelmed. Relentless trials. Ruthless people. I’m not sure I can go on living like this. Disconnected from everyone else. Cut off from you. Why don’t you listen to me? I feel like you don’t care. Don’t you want me to be whole? You are the one in control of my life. You are the one who is ruining it. Darkness is a better friend to me than you are. I don’t understand. I feel like you’ve betrayed our relationship, but I don’t want to quit on us. So I’m telling you how I feel and asking you to answer me.  Yes, I’m complaining, but I‘m complaining to you! I won’t pretend that everything is fine between us, but I want it to be. I’m going to keep telling you about it so that we can work this out. Listen to me!” (my paraphrase of Psalm 88)

O LORD, the God who saves me, day and night I cry out before you. May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry. For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near the grave. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like a man without strength. I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care. You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief. I call to you, O LORD, every day; I spread out my hands to you. Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do those who are dead rise up and praise you? Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction ? Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion? But I cry to you for help, O LORD; in the morning my prayer comes before you. Why, O LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me? From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death; I have suffered your terrors and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me. You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.
Psalm 88

How do we pray to the one who is wounding us? How do we relate to the God who is orchestrating our mess? We can pretend like it’s not really Him. We can focus on His goodness and live in denial over the pain He brings. Or we can get angry and withdraw. We can turn away and refuse to communicate with Him. But neither of these responses will bring reconciliation to our damaged relationship. Neither will bring resolution to the wound festering within our own soul.

We understand the need for conflict resolution within human relationships, but conflict resolution with God is not really that different. It requires honesty, open communication, and dogged perseverance. It takes unswerving commitment to the relationship and a willingness to wrestle back and forth until both parties emerge heard, understood, and re-united.

Laments are conflict-resolution prayers. They are gutsy refusals to quit on our relationship with God or to settle for a polite, distant co-existence with Him. When we read the whole Bible and not just the nice, tidy parts, we run into lengthy sections of messy people screaming out their anguish to God. Unspeakable horrors. Irreverent feelings. Dangerous questions. All the things that would shock the stockings off our Sunday school teachers, brought right into God’s presence and laid out in the form of a complaint before His holy throne. Are we really allowed to be so bold? With all that is on the line, we can’t afford not to be.

Laments are gutsy refusals to quit on our relationship with God.

Thankfully, God not only allows us to lament, He teaches us how to do it. The Psalms and the prophets provide excellent models for how to voice our complaints to God. He even provides the words ahead of time for His people to use in their hour of despair. When Jesus cried out His agonizing question to God on the cross, He was merely borrowing the words that had been provided for Him centuries in advance through the Psalms.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.
Psalm 22:1-2

Whether we borrow the words of Scripture or come up with our own words to express the agonized cries of our hearts, we are following in good footsteps. Lament has long been the prayer of the faithful. We could use some lessons in this lost art.

Teach your daughters how to wail: teach one another a lament.
Jeremiah 9:20

When Joy is Wrong

“Stop telling me why I shouldn’t hurt. Since when did that help anyone? Listen to the roar of the pain, the rage, the frustration, the disappointment churning deep within me. Don’t ignore my agony. Acknowledge that it is real. Don’t leave me alone in it. Hurt with me. Don’t mock me with simple solutions. Wrestle with me. Don’t silence me with platitudes. Make space for my lament.”

I know I shouldn’t be, but I have been surprised by the number of wounded individuals who have responded to the raw, unresolved pain of my last post with stories of their own suppressed suffering. I say suppressed because for many of them, well-intentioned Christian “comforters” have compounded their pain, not alleviated it; praise-filled church services have crushed their spirits, not lifted them. What’s wrong with this picture?

I suspect that many Christians are too threatened by the immensity of pain to be able to engage it. It scares them, because if they look it straight in the face, they might lose their joy, might start to question God’s goodness, might even be in danger of losing their faith! So they escape into exciting praise songs, testimonies with happy endings, and repeated reminders to be thankful and joyful all the time. But where does that leave the wounded? Out in the cold. Isolated, hurt, and now with a generous serving of guilt on top.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
Psalm 137:1-3

The Jewish exiles shared a similar experience. Their homes pillaged and burned, their loved ones raped and murdered, their temple desecrated, their country destroyed, and themselves hauled off as helpless captives, they sat in the prison of a strange, scary place with nothing but the painful memories of all they had lost. Traumatized. Grieving. Broken. Their hands hung limp. Their harps hung unused.

There are times when songs of joy are just wrong, when cries of lament are the truest form of worship.

As if that weren’t enough, their captors came around to taunt them. “Sing us one of your praise choruses! You know, the catchy tunes you used to sing back home.” Worse than another blow to the body, this kind of torment violated their souls. It made a mockery of their pain, requiring them to pretend that nothing had happened and that everything was fine.

The exiles did not give in to the pressure. They refused to join the farce, to surrender the last few shreds of dignity they had left. How could they enact the lie of being joyful when they were anything but? Instead they used their voices to express their agony over the horrors they had endured. They called on God to remember all that had happened to them, and not to forget it until He had made it right. God did not condemn them for refusing to be joyful at that moment. Rather, He recorded their laments for our benefit.

How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy. Remember, O LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell…
Psalm 137:4-7

There are times when joy is just wrong, when faking praise only further isolates us from God. There are seasons when lament is the truest form of worship, the only honest way we can relate to God. This is not a permanent state, but rather a necessary stage on the road back to joy.

Embedded within the New Testament calls to “be joyful in hope”(Rom. 12:12) and to “rejoice with those who rejoice”(Rom. 12:15) is also a reminder to “mourn with those who mourn”(Rom. 12:15). Whether we find ourselves currently in a season of celebration or in a season of despair, love compels us to acknowledge and share in each other’s emotional realities. Compassionate tears. Shared laughter. Heart-rending cries for mercy. Heart-filled songs of praise. This is the stuff that binds us together as the church, with our weeping, worshipping Savior at the core.

Leave me alone…

Sometimes God’s love is unbearable. I remember coming to that conclusion during a season of life in which it seemed we survived one round of intense hardship only to face the next. Every task we put our hands to failed miserably; everyone we prayed for ended up in a worse state than before; the ratio of our dead children to those still living was 2 to 1; each month left our bank account further in the red; and the only thing we could really count on is that my next major illness would strike while my husband was away on an important ministry trip. Where was God in all this?

I was faced with a conundrum. The Scriptures depict Him so clearly as the God who sovereignly reigns over every detail of life, but if I were to really believe that, it would mean that His was the hand obstructing my path and inflicting my pain. How could I go for comfort to the very hand that was wounding me? I had nowhere else to go. But why was He being so hard on me? I wasn’t living with unconfessed sin. I wasn’t pursuing my own selfish interests. My whole life was oriented around bringing His glory among the nations. Didn’t He want me to succeed?

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.”
Endure hardship as disipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons.
…God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Hebrews 12:5-8, 10-11

As it often does, the book of Hebrews spoke directly to my questions: “… the Lord disciplines those he loves, and punishes everyone he accepts as a son. Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons”(12:6–7). In the past this passage had comforted me, showing me the value of the hardships I was facing and reminding me that God was lovingly using them for my good. But this time it was too much. I had willingly endured so much hardship at His hands that I just couldn’t take any more. I knew that out of His great love for me, He was putting me through intensive training so that I could share in His holiness. But frankly, I just couldn’t handle any more of this kind of love. It had worn me out and broken me down. I wanted Him to leave me alone, to go love on someone else for a little while. But how could I actually say that to God?

David went through similar seasons in his own life. He didn’t hesitate to express his sentiments directly to God, and God in turn recorded them in His Word.

But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you …
I was silent; I would not open my mouth, for you are the one who has done this.
Remove your scourge from me; I am overcome by the blow of your hand.
You rebuke and discipline men for their sin …
Look away from me, that I may rejoice again
before I depart and am no more.
Psalm 39:7, 9–11, 13

God includes such disrespectfully raw prayers in the Bible to give us permission to express to Him the true cries of our heart.

That’s how the Psalm ends. Not very emotionally tidy or theologically comfortable. When the composers of the Genevan Psalter put this psalm to music, they just couldn’t leave it off there. Their solution was to add on the first few lines of the next psalm so that we wouldn’t be left hanging in the depths of despair. But God includes such disrespectfully raw prayers in the Bible to give us permission to express to Him the true cries of our heart. Forced resolution, fake smiles, empty platitudes just won’t cut it. Sometimes we need to acknowledge our despair to Him and sit with the dilemma. So I will…
(until next time.)

Weak Writers, Strong Source

David manic-depressive? Peter OCD? Paul suicidal? The mere possibility would have rocked my world once. The idea that my heroes of the faith, the inspired authors of Scripture, could have been influenced by mental or emotional “disorders” would have left me squirming uncomfortably. Why? Perhaps because those who raise these points often do so in order to discredit the inerrancy of their writings. Perhaps because I want to think of these men of God as above such human frailty, serenely transcending the storms of life and passing on pristine truths that teach us how to do the same.

For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’sake. For God, who said “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
2 Corinthians 4:5-7

But the fact of the matter is, God chose real, messy people to write His Word. When we lay aside our rose-colored glasses and read their words the way we would read a letter written by anyone else, we can’t help but hear their messy emotions, their heart-rending cries, and their dangerous questions. These were men and women who struggled the way we do, and whose human frailty was completely intertwined with their writings to and about God. Whether we slap disorder labels on them or simply chalk their occasionally frenzied condition up to their particular life circumstances, we have to come to terms with the fact that they were real people struggling with real issues.
So does the mental and emotional frailty of the Biblical writers make what they wrote any less true? Only, I suppose, if Scripture’s authority hinges on human aptitude. We would all be in trouble if it did. Thankfully, human limitations do not constrain God. If anything, He seems to specialize in making His lofty, unchanging truth known through the weakest, least-likely candidates: shepherd boys, fishermen, and former terrorists.

God specializes in making His lofty, unchanging truth known through the weakest, least-likely candidates.

My own life struggles have pushed me to embrace the messiness of the Biblical writers. As long as my life was simple and straightforward, I was content to read the Bible as a series of propositional truths that I was meant to believe and obey. My modernist mind searched the Scriptures for abstract truth, valuing it as more valid when it stood completely apart from any particular context. But that approach to the Bible simply could not hold water when life experiences left my soul riddled with holes. Broken, confused, and desperate for God to speak to my troubled heart, I went back to the Word with new eyes. There I found a whole community of people as messed up as I was (some, shockingly, even more so). What they had to say about God resonated deeper and rang truer because of the difficult circumstances in which they said it.

To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me… Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.
2 Corinthians 12:7, 9

Far from being a threat to their credibility, the Biblical writers’ life stories provide a fitting frame for the truths they wrote. It is one thing to write about the sovereign goodness of God when He is orchestrating our lives according to our expected patterns; it is quite another when He turns our world upside down and seems to be in no hurry to make it right. We like singing hymns written by people in such desperate circumstances, but are we content to build our theological towers on the writings of depressed, conflicted invalids? If God can accomplish the transmission of His inerrant Word through their messy lives, I guess there is hope for us, too.